Agency, 1 November : The deep stages of sleep may give the brain a chance to wash itself free of potentially toxic substances, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that during deep sleep, the “slow-wave” activity of nerve cells appears to make room for cerebral spinal fluid to rhythmically move in and out of the brain -a process believed to rinse out metabolic waste products.
Those waste products include beta-amyloid — a protein that clumps abnormally in the brains of people with dementia, said researcher Laura Lewis, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University.
Lewis stressed that the findings, reported in the Nov. 1 issue of Science, do not prove that deep sleep helps ward off dementia or other diseases.
But the ultimate goal of research like this is to understand why poor sleep quality is linked to higher risks of various chronic conditions, from dementia to heart disease to depression, she said.
Researchers have known that cerebral spinal fluid, or CSF, helps clear metabolic byproducts from the brain, so that they do not build up there. They’ve also known that the process appears to amp up during sleep. But various “hows” and “whys” remained.
So the investigators recruited 11 healthy adults for a sleep study using noninvasive techniques: advanced MRI to monitor fluid flow in the brain, and electroencephalograms to gauge electrical activity in brain cells.
Sleep is marked by REM and non-REM cycles. During REM sleep, breathing and heart rates are relatively higher, and people often have vivid dreams. Non-REM sleep includes stages of deep — or slow-wave — sleep. During those stages, there’s a slow-down in brain cell activity, heart rate and blood flow, and research has found that deep sleep may aid memory consolidation and allow the brain to recover from the daily grind.
“There are all these fundamental things your brain is taking care of during deep sleep,” Lewis said.
Her team found that housecleaning may be one. When study participants were in deep sleep, each pulse in slow-wave brain activity was followed by oscillations in blood flow and volume, which allowed CSF to flow into fluid-filled cavities in the central brain.
CSF moved in “large, pulsing waves” that were seen only during deep sleep, Lewis explained.
Based on what’s known about the work of CSF, experts said it’s reasonable to conclude that slow-wave sleep promotes the flushing of waste from the brain.
The study “elegantly” illustrates the importance of deep sleep, according to Dr. Phyllis Zee, a sleep medicine specialist not involved in the work.
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